Paper Trains

Six days.

Three rail journeys.

A thousand and one thoughts from here to there to here and back again.

Two thousand words, fourteen hours and twenty three minutes.

Sometimes I sit thinking on trains.

Tuesday. On the train again. I get out my notebook to write down what I see, and to reflect on what I’ve experienced during the train journeys of the past few days. It’s a long way from Reading to Par. That’s a lot of landscape and a whole lot of thoughts in four hours.

10:05 – First White Horse, frozen mid-trot across the chalk hills on the north side of the train, as we hurtle westwards through the Vale of Pewsey. We almost directly follow the line of the Kennet and Avon canal. Lock gates and secondary streams flank the first stretch of the journey, along with water meadows, thick-trunked willows, pylons. A half cut field is striped chocolate and peanut butter.

Thursday evening, took the incoming train that I normally take home from Truro on workdays. The Penryn estuary looked drizerable from the viaduct. I was reading Cloud Atlas and its title felt all too complicit with the view from my window.

10:15 – THE White Horse (Westbury) on the line of hills out of the south side window. He’s looking very white today. Apparently if you climb up and sit in his eye you get to make a wish.

From Truro a little boy of three who looked five sat/fidgeted next to me. “Where are we?” Just coming in to St Austell. “Where are we now?” St Austell. “Where are we now?” Still in St Austell. “Are we in a tunnel?” No, we’re just going through some trees. “Why is it dark?” Because we’re in some trees. “Is it a tree tunnel?”

10:30 – Castle Cary, rosebay willowherb.

10:36 – Flatter countryside: I spy Somerset. If that be the case I must look out for Glastonbury, and almost immediately I spot it on the horizon: hill with a longer slope on one side than the other, and a slender tower making a distinctive silhouette. There’s a strange knack I have with this train journey that I seem to always know when to look out of the window to catch the landmarks. But who knows how many I miss with my nose in a book. Scabious or thistles fleetingly blue in a rubble patch, now here, now passed.

Boy demands of Mum how long they’ve still got to go. She tells him a long time still. “Seven hours?” ‘Not quite that long.’ “Ten minutes??”

10:42 – Deer in a field of coltsfoot – just the russet of its head visible.

10:45 – The decoy Glastonbury: Burrow Mump at Burrowbridge. It’s name is onomatopoeic for its pudding basin shaped hill with a tower on top. Going by the place names we could be in Midsomer Murders.

Newquay branch line and tanks and separators and IMERYS buildings of “Where are we now?” Par…

10:53 – BRITISH RAILWAYS TAUNTON FREIGHT CONCENTRATION DEPOT. Old brick archways. Ultramarine and glossy white ironwork. Those pointy fringed canopies that always remind me of cut and fold flat-pack kits for railway modelling.

Dark by Bristol Temple Meads and a long time past his usual bed time by the time (not quite seven hours but considerably more than ten minutes) he got to disembark. Still more before I got to: in fact from door to door seven hours was not too shy of the truth.

10:58 – Freighter on a side track with so many yellow service trucks attached that it looks like it’s been assembled by a child from a train set.

Last train from Reading on the Gatwick line. Too many drunk people for a Thursday night. I pretended to be engrossed in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish but there was too much going on to be able to concentrate. A lady in office attire accessorised with lace cat ears and a bunch of polkadot balloons is going home after a workplace hen night.

11:20 – Winding small rivers through wet fields mean we’re nearing Exeter. A cormorant stands midstream, mid-meander.

In the bay across the aisle a man lay on his back exhibiting no signs of life. I had assumed sleep or an alcohol induced coma but Cat Ear Lady thought he’d died. No, he was still breathing. Men in navy suits with Subways and a liquid laxity to their vocalism got on and boxed me in to a corner. It was only when I got up to get off the train that I realised they were barely out of their teens. I felt I looked young, felt old.

11:26 – So close, yet so far to the passengers just a few feet away in the Virgin train on the adjacent track. A tattooed arm pressed up against the window. A white-haired woman carefully replacing Fifty Shades of Grey into a Marks and Spencers carrier bag and folding in the sides. She’s fooling no one with that trick.

Friday. Twyford station is always much bigger than I think it’s going to be: so many more tracks and platforms. But then this is on the high [rail] road from the West in to London: next stop, the Big Metropolis.

11:34 – Flotilla of swans on the Exe mouth. The tide is in. Waders – sanderling, greenshank, curlew, dunlin, (the small browns), egrets, heron, all crammed on to the last emersed bit of saltmarsh in the elbow of the bar across the river mouth at Dawlish Warren.

I love the way the trains ‘not scheduled to stop at this station’ shoot through Fast-Fast-Fast then gone and it seems very quiet afterwards. Equally I love being on a train as it shoots Fast-Fast-Fast through a station that we’re not calling at: that sound as the platforms and buildings seem thrown alongside the train before we’re out the other side with the familiar shuck and rattle blending in to the background as we hurtle onwards.

11:36 – The unique colour palate of the South Devon coast: grey green muddy sea, cliffs like faded bricks. Pink beach. Black tunnel. Not being able to hear the sound of the sea for the sound of the train.

Out the window were walls. Tall buildings. Graffiti. Concrete. Maidenhead. Offices. Slough. Bilingual station signs at Southall in a language and script I don’t even recognise. What country am I in?

11:52 – Braided hills, dark green hedges, a subtly different patchwork of fields to the previous slice of countryside: this is D’ben proper. A marshy field. A reedy field. A river. The Dart. Brutus son of Aeneas.

Paddington unfamiliar. I liked the evocative echoes of many feet, many voices, many trains, many machines reverberating round the giant atrium as travellers each with their own singular agenda navigated their own way through the concourse, though flowing together in currents of common purpose as they – we – were channelled to and from platforms, exits, escalators, stairways, Tubes.

11:59 – Totnes Castle just visible on its motte. Much convolvulus in the hedges. Colourful allotments.

We didn’t know where to look for the Bear. Maybe I needed a label too: please look after this person. But I had a tube map in the back of my diary and we made it onto the Circle line travelling in the right direction.

12:07 – First sight of Dartmoor: slopes mottled like camouflage gear with the tor rocks peeking through at the top. I imagine geological time speeding as fast as this train is travelling and getting a glimpse of the ground eroding down around the rock, more and more of the underlying solidified volcanic being exposed at high speed.

Air temperature so hot outdoors that the usual Underground hotness seemed unnoticeable. I thought about putting my hair up but then worried about how many sweat patches I would be exposing if I did so.

12:13 – Victorian factory and brick chimney in a tree-y hollow at Ivybridge reminds me of Danny Boyle’s Pandaemonium of the industrial revolution rising up from England’s green and pleasant lands before the Olympic gold rush. The Wild West and the Industrial West sit hand in hand: this landscape both denuded and enriched by its minerals industry.

London at night as busy as London by day. London at night as warm as London by day.

12:15 – Devon’s oak woodland: Dart being the old word for oak. Planted larches. Sitting down cows.

Tuesday morning, Reading station again.

12:20 – The River Plym with a ribcage of a boat stuck in the mud.

12:22 – Plymouth. White flowered buddleia. Ragwort, evening primrose, valerian. Hardy enough, all of these to withstand the constant pollution at the railside. Invasive enough to persist through the rubble and infrastructure.

Again, again: fourth time in six days I stood on that platform, feeling like I’m always travelling by train. How many hours have I spent on the train in the last six days? Twelve hours? Fifteen? Too long and I’m not good enough at maths to work it out.

12:32 – Devonport across the inland sea of the Hamoaze, a bigger Fal estuary, with more Naval stuff.

12:36 – Tamar crossings ahead. Brunel’s Bridge. Pandaemonium again (Kenneth Brannagh in top hat and mutton chops).

Platform 7 (was 4). The whole of Reading station is undergoing a refit/reshuffle in order to make more space, more platforms and fewer train bottlenecks. In the past pretty much everything going west, be that Bristol, Cornwall, South Wales, Oxford, got funnelled through the same few platforms here.  

12:42 – We parallel the Lynher on the way to St German’s: its mudflats are full of streams wriggling back on themselves as ribbons do when laid down without design.

Cue five new platforms out from the northern end of the station, a whole new station concourse and bridge up from outside the Three Tuns pub, looking like a giant escalator encasement: modern, ugly and totally incongruous with the Victorian frontage of the pub, and even with the 20th century outer of the main station.

12:51 – Cornwall and gorse in bloom.

12:54 – Nonsensical field patterns bounded by stone-faced hedges quite different from their easterly counterparts.

However, given the architectural mix of 19th-20th-21st century in Reading town centre maybe they have made the right choice with the design.

Travelling by train the landscape changes so gradually that it is hard to follow the evolution of the scenery as it is actually happening, and yet now you look out of the window and it is completely different, but somehow the same. What is it that makes the Berkshire pastoral so similar to the rest of the English countryside and yet Somerset so distinctively Somerset, whilst Devon is still hedges and fields and cows but it looks different again. I find it hard to describe the differences and I think it’s probably because the underlying reasons behind them are precisely that: the underlying geology affecting the soil type, affecting the vegetation so the meadows are still meadows but made up of a slightly different collection of weeds and wild flowers, so that green and pleasant land is still green but a different shade or texture, and the land appears to be divided up just the same but the hedges are built, laid or let grow of their own accord to a local preference.  It’s all very English: ergo it’s all the same. It’s all very local and thus hugely varied.

Thistles gone to seed. Soil creep ridging a slope.

09:40 – Reading West now behind us. I wondered if perhaps a bolder decision would have been to emulate Reading’s distinctive red brick gothic buildings for the new station?

12:58 – Liskeard for Looe. Rain begins. Kernow agas dynergh.

Soon this early 21st century architecture will be looking as dated and undesirable as the concrete mistakes of the 1960s and 70s. Or perhaps that’s just my opinion.

13:20 – Two fowl in a field just before Par.

09:51 – Watery bylands serviced by the Kennet and Avon canal. River barges. Lock gates. Willows. 


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